LINGUIST List 10.1263

Mon Aug 30 1999

Disc: Universal Word Order

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Sean Witty, Intuitions on universal word order

Message 1: Intuitions on universal word order

Date: Sun, 29 Aug 1999 13:20:34 KST
From: Sean Witty <>
Subject: Intuitions on universal word order

Recently I read an article concerning the existence of a universal word 
order. The author analyzes one argument for a universal SVO word order, 
discusses what is wrong with that argument, and then proceeds to argue in 
favor of a universal SOV word order. The most notable features of both 
arguments presented are

1. The SVO argument belongs to a native speaker of an SVO language and is 
based solely on other SVO languages. The author of the article, and a 
proponent of the SOV argument, is a native speaker of an SOV language, the 
argument is based on other SOV languages and flaws in the SVO argument.

2. Despite validity questions and obvious flaws present in both arguments 
(i.e., selection of languages used in argumentation and obvious exceptions 
that were overlooked), they are equally compelling.

I spent some time afterwards pondering over the issue of word order. Is 
there a universal word order? If so, what is it? If not, how can non-native 
speakers of a language casually acquire languages of the other word order 
type? Why do human beings use two separate word orders to achieve the same 

According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a person's perception of the world, 
culture, is influenced by that person's native language. One hundred years 
earlier, Humboldt suggests that culture, as its benefactor, influences 
language. While there is plenty of evidence to support both sides of this 
argument, neither is actually antithetical to the other and it is sufficient 
to say that language and culture have an independent, yet mutually 
symbiotic, relationship.

Regardless of cultural or linguistic affiliation, all "normal" humans 
possess the same five senses and a brain that works, more or less, the same 
way. Generally, cultural affiliations determine one's perception of the 
world and one's linguistic affiliation; linguistic affiliations determine 
how one communicates with others. Languages, therefore, represent cognitive 
perception after cultural influence. This would suggest, therefore, that it 
is not an individual's perception of the world that is influenced by 
culture, but the way in which that world is expressed. Many people have had 
thoughts that were difficult to put into words, and many languages do not 
have forms that other languages do. The important thing is that people still 
have these thoughts and ideas, even if the language does not. Thus, whatever 
influence culture and language have on each other, it starts at the deep 
structure, where cognition meets language.

If the universal word order is SVO/SOV (choose one), then all speakers of 
SOV/SVO (choose the other) languages would necessarily be speaking a 
language in opposition to their cognitive processes. This frame of logic 
begs three questions:

1. What would prompt a culture group to adopt a linguistic affiliation that 
is antithetical to cognitive reality?

2. What advantage is gained by doing so?

3. How does one explain the linguistic processes involved?

In the original article, questions 1 and 2 are ignored. Perhaps this is 
appropriate, since linguists hardly ever concern themselves with 
non-linguistic questions of "why". When faced with two equally plausible 
arguments, however, it is always preferable to select the simpler of the 
two. In this case, not only are the arguments equally plausible, they are 
equally complicated. Thus, questions 1 and 2 become appropriate because 
both sides have presented "equal" arguments as answers to question 3.

The answers to the first and second questions are quite easy: they would 
not. People are generally lazy and, as such, they prefer language systems 
that are simple and easy to master. If the opposite were true, then the 
Roman alphabet would never have developed and the Northern Semitic alphabet 
might still be used. Many people attest to changes in language, but our 
languages really do not change -- simply our usage of them. In almost all 
cases of linguistic change, the new form represents a simplification of the 
older form (for example, enclitic mutation, pictographic vs. phonetic 
writing systems, and metathesis). Without any advantage to be gained, a 
clumsy linguistic system that is antithetical to the cognitive process would 
quickly become extinct in favor of a less complicated, more convenient 

Since both sides provide convincing arguments, yet attribute behavior that 
is inconsistent with human nature, perhaps they are both right AND they are 
both wrong?

Suppose a woman sees an apple on a table. According to the SOV rationale and 
Sapir-Whorf, she realizes the apple before realizing that she sees it, and 
few would argue differently. Thus, cognitive perception of the direct 
object, 'the apple', precedes perception of the preterit, 'to see'. SVO 
speakers, therefore, must modify the order of perception to fit the word 
order demands of their languages.

Now, suppose the woman eats the apple and visits her boyfriend, who offers 
to cook dinner for her. According to the SVO rationale and Sapir-Whorf, the 
woman realizes that she has already eaten before she realizes that the apple 
is what she ate. Thus, cognitive perception of the preterit, 'to eat', 
precedes perception of the direct object, 'the apple'. SOV speakers, 
therefore, must modify the order of cognitive perception to fit the word 
order demands of their languages.

In truth, it is impossible to say that, 100% of the time, perception is in 
accordance with the word order of one's native language. As such, it makes 
sense that every language, as a universal rule, would have a primary word 
order (SOV/SVO) and linguistic processes for dealing with perception that 
does not conform to this order.

In the case of the universal SVO word order argument, the formulae to 
explain the derivation of the SOV surface form do not support universal SVO, 
but do explain how SOV languages deal with SVO perceptions. Similar formulae 
in the SOV argument neither explain the derivation of the SVO surface form 
nor support universal SOV, but do explain how SVO languages deal with SOV 

Since there exist occasions when cognitive perception can be either SVO or 
SOV, it seems likely that both forms are universal at the cognitive level. 
When these perceptions are converted into linguistic forms, the deep 
structure of the language forces conversion of perceptions that do not 
conform to the word order of the language. The only universal truth about 
word order, then, is that the subject must precede the verb -- but this is 
another issue.

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